The Hardest Trail

There is a crazy stretch of trail through the center of my town. The surface is paved, but badly. The boulders are huge and most of them are moving at erratic speeds. The roots are places where road salt and water have broken the surface in random patterns. There are hikers everywhere, and none of them ever yields an inch.

When I was younger, I relished the technical challenges of the asphalt landscape. I thought I was in control of my destiny there, that my superior bike handling skills and powers of anticipation would spare me from the sorts of high stakes collision that no wooded path ever threatens. Any paragraph that begins with the phrase “When I was younger…” must obviously end with the coda, “I was wrong.”

The hard surface is telling you to run slick, skinny tires. Everything else is screaming, at the very least, for more air volume. And maybe body armor.

Arguably the most useful skill you can develop on a mountain bike is the ability to lift your front wheel over and/or onto obstacles. This is a skill I first learned, as a kid, hopping curbs, the fastest way to evacuate a street where the hazards were multiplying, and the space was decreasing rapidly. “Garbage truck!” someone might have yelled.

Exhibit A, sustained in a one bike accident coming into a red light a trifle hot.

Perhaps the second most valuable move on a mountain bike is sticking your rear end back out over your rear tire, to keep all the rubber on the ground as you grab a great fistful of front brake. This same maneuver is key to pulling up short as the bus swerves blindly across your path, or a pedestrian fails to interpret the red, humanoid shape blaring at them from across the way as a hint they shouldn’t be walking out into the road.

I have been hit three times while riding on the road, twice by cars, once by a motorcycle. Road rash, a thing you get from hitting the road at speed, is not nearly as innocuous as its name implies. I have sustained many such skin abrasions in my cycling lifetime, but relatively few from mountain biking. It’s not that mountain biking is safe, per se, it’s that the environment is more stable mostly, more predictable, and much softer by and large.

Where is it I’m supposed to have on a full-face helmet again?

I have many friends who are roadies. They insist they don’t know how to ride trails, but I tell them, “Riding a bike is riding a bike. The road is a trail and almost all the skills transfer. The woods are much safer than where you’ve spent your formative years, and there are birds singing songs there and the bus never comes. You should really try it.”

Join the conversation
  1. jlaudolff says

    “Erratic speeds”
    Made my day

  2. bradfordnoble says

    Similarly, most of the people who wear skis ride them where the most likely injury comes by way of collision with other people. Took me a while, but as I got better at mountain biking, I was drawn further into it for the same reasons I’m drawn into the further out places on snow. I still stuck at mountain biking. But it is drawing me in.

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