Emil Walcek 5-2005 – Grown daughter, Heather, bikes the Silver Comet 50 miles with her buddies on a hand-me-down mountain bike, comes back aching and with enough adrenaline-inspired hype to get me going. Dusting basement stuff off my old Nishiki 12 speed road bike I remember some good biking times. How safe can decades-old, cracking tire rubber be? It’ll do, I tell myself.
Understand that I have never been a cycling enthusiast by any measure. Decades ago I intermittently commuted 4-5 miles to work (when I didn’t have meetings). I first nurtured, then followed kids through their early cycling days. Longest distance I ever pedaled was an adventure to and from Stone Mountain with my visiting brother-in-law. I let bicycling slip from my activities as cars, trucks, motor homes (and some of the people in them) got too scary on the roads.
Plus, I had fallen into the bass-ackwards time-sapping, proverbial life-trap of living to work.
Bikes were viewed differently back in dinosaur times. Before many events in my life: the mid life crisis I’ve been in for over thirty years, family, marriage, college, back even before banana seats single-speed pedal-brake bikes carried us all over a small San Fernando Valley neighborhood in CA foothills: school, friends, hobby shop, public pool, park, flood-wash area behind the corner store, church, library, summer odd-jobs. Mostly, bikes were how we got around faster than walking, and so we custom rigged them mostly for practicality. Although, no telling how many collectible baseball cards we sacrificed, clothesline pin-clipped into moving spokes to simulate a motor.
Speedy, accurate newspaper throws to houses on quarter acre lots with one pass down a block were thanks to high rise handlebars. Come early Thursday mornings before school, two tethers from each pouch of a large, white canvas paperboy’s bag were attached at just the right height for grabbing and throwing; and signaled the fun part of an otherwise arduous morning of folding and rubber-banding 100+ newspapers.
A stout wire basket over the front tire carried all kinds of stuff: wood and tools for fort-building in vacant lots, empty pop bottles worth 3 cents apiece at the corner store, and an occasional pedestrian friend. Zigzagging got us up most hills. Bike chains were repaired with a screwdriver, center punch and hammer. Everything was cleaned with kerosene and lubricated with motor oil. Flats were fixed with a match, wheels trued with pliers and a good eye.
Fast forward to near-by great and smooth cement pathways limited to human-powered motion free of curbside tire-pinching features. Open air freedom, low impact aerobics, ever-changing scenery and safe, personal challenges beckon.
Heather and I complete several under-20 mile jaunts on the Silver Comet, a converted railway bed beginning in Cobb County, and the Big Creek Greenway, a scenic parkway molded from commercially un-developable wetlands that begins behind our North Fulton county mega mall and retail center. Man, I am out of shape. We stop every mile and a half. I guzzle pints of water that never seem to make up for what flows through my pores. My face is flushed. Shifting is priority-one to handle even gentle rises. The rewards of our perceived accomplishments come with but one small price: comfort. Joints scream, muscles ache, skin chafes in all the wrong places. We draw strength and encouragement from one another sufficient to commit to the next time riding before each trip ends. It’s fun getting started again, and Heather and I become regular bike buddies two or three times a week.
Beyond road riding, Mansell (Big Creek Trails), MTB & beyond. But first, get me a fat tire bike!
One day, a couple of months later Heather gushes details about a scary fun trail ride close-by shared with a group of encouraging practitioners. Her infectious enthusiasm again rubs off. Now, I had been marveling at $49 MTB-style bikes in department store flyers (henceforth referred to as DSBs – dept store bikes). How could I go wrong? The joke lasted long enough – one loop (or a babe-in-the-woods equivalent) – for me to know I could definitely get into trail riding. Despite DSB gears that never meshed, I was hooked after an exhausting, sweaty, terrifying, huffing, puffing, and downright exhilarating experience.
No problem, I took the DSB special back for an exchange. At this point (as you are correct in thinking) my eagerness to hit the trails is not matched by even a smidgen of toy-buying smarts. Back on the trail I bent the rim, rode half the way with a flat tire, and the shifting was still flaky. Got my money back and rushed over to another department store with a fool’s expectations that a slightly higher budget and another DSB brand might do the trick. I repeat the same penny-wise, pound foolish-upgrade experience TWO MORE TIMES.
Getting the picture, I go to a bike shop (LBS) expecting and receiving sticker shock, yet still have no idea what I’m looking at, just get me a bike that works on the trails, man! At least the LBS says they service the bike for life, and at this point that’s certainly worth the price of admission!
After hearing my department store bike horror stories & way more info than he wants to hear, “How much do you want to spend?” the sales kid asks. “I don’t know, maybe as much as $300!” Did I just double my budget? I’m putty in his hands. “OK, try this one for $300, or this other one for a little more (another $50).” With me is my wife and soul mate for 30 plus years, who empathizes with me in spirit if not in the doing of such adventures. She points out that 4 bikes in 3 weeks is some kind of house record for getting a toy right. As usual in our relationship, hindsight for me is intuitively obvious right off the bat for her. We walk out with the more expensive one. Experienced bike folk know where this is going, again. Needless to say the sales kid’s boss asked me the right question after I brought the brand new bike store bike back with a bent rim, “Where do you ride?” We made an exchange deal for the hard-tail I’m still riding after installing 2 grades up front and rear derailleurs. Fifth time’s the charm! Watch out if the mega stores ever figure out how to provide more bike customer service than the tedious processing of exchanges!
The MTB initiation trail experience
With my modified bike store bike – low-end by serious MTB standards, off-the-chart high-end by department store standards – my daughter and I ride a couple of times a week, schedules and recuperation permitting. For the next 12 months we exhaust all the trails at the pre-developed Big Creek Park. Some days we go for speed, some for climbing, some for distance. The excitement builds before we ever hit the trail head parking lot. With very ride my mental, circulatory and fluid systems go into over drive. Afterwards my lower leg veins throb even while relaxing after a shower with a beer.
Going up (but seldom making) the old bone crusher hill at Big Creek taxes our physical and mental stamina. A scorched throat gasping for air at the end of a steep or long climb tends to diminish resolve, as do muscles that just flat won’t go any more. Every root, rock and rut becomes a challenge. Fatigue on the trail leads to lapses in judgment, slips and falls. My false reactions are many and expose weaknesses I’ll have to work on. But it’s all part of the rush. We see progress – we’re getting there! So what if it’s 3 steps forward two back some days?
Roswell’s Big Creek Bike Trails become our close-to-home MTB base, our proving ground. Staying vertical is the order of the day. Turning is a study. Heather has fewer spills than I (but, hey, I try more things!). 4 loosely tied together landscape timbers called Troll Bridge down at the bottom of matching cliff banks made only lightly less menacing by steep, angled root steps is one of 2 major challenges in the area. One of loose planks bites my front tire on one of my first trail rides. Into the creek I go. The other biggie is simply designated steepest climb on an early trail map, a twisting ravine up an incline carved out by outlawed motorcycles. We designate trail locations by my mishaps: chin-on-root rise, summersalt turn, face-in-mud gorge, shin scrape hill. No one has ever had to sell me on the value of helmet!
Nothing compares with single trail riding experience: twists and turns, up and down hills; across creeks; deciding which fork to take today. You live for the next buzz. Coming upon a shelf, a sudden drop off, you quickly cock your body way back over the rear tire, allowing brakes and center-of-gravity to control direction and decent. Encountering common forest wildlife in the best scenery nature has to offer completes the MTB payoff.
Wincing at the blood part of my blood and mud trail riding adventure stories, I fail to infect my acquaintances with the MTB bug the way Heather did me. So, it is her friends who join us from time to time on trail rides.
Early on, I swear, half the workout is from the thrill – sheer terror, really. And while I initially marveled at the grip and control afforded by the fat tire experience it’s hard to break free from the skinny tire, road-riding mind set. Development of one’s trail riding reflexes and muscles becomes a never ending challenge. Overly cautious habits like sniffing the trail with the front tire to keep balance on tough trails, jerking left and right like a beagle on the scent of a rabbit are outgrown. Learning to rely less on handle bars as life savers, using body weight to steer, and developing a trust for equipment comes with practice. Learning how to keep the center of gravity (CG) to the rear is a major breakthrough for me.
I learn, and continue to practice what old time MTBers know by rote. When tooling along on any singletrack, keep the (m)ass rearwards and youll never flip. Down a steep grade, keep it completely behind the seat. Your non-DSB (department store) bike can take (most) all the beating a rough trail can serve up. All we have to do is keep our feet steady on the crank, make it the pivot for our rearward center of gravity.
Also, my mantra must maintain momentum helps me keep the long trail view in focus, rather than the next rock, root, steep drop-off, or sudden rise two inches ahead of my front tire. This keeps me moving forward, helps me resist unnecessary (and detrimental) braking, eliminates a lot of dumb stumbles, and improves negotiation of technical features ahead. Fight instincts to brake and back off the crank when surprised. Instead, do the opposite: pedal to the metal & see if it doesn’t put you up a notch in confidence like it did me.
Easier said than done on technical trails, embracing centrifugal force as an ally ensures smooth twists and turns. Turn your head in the direction you want to go and your bike will follow (it’s like magic!).
Just doing these things a lot, while experimenting with all the leg/foot angles and actions seems to add to that inner MTB library that facilitates future responses. I’m not there by any stretch of the imagination (after two years at this point), but MTB nirvana is around the corner, I can tell. All I have to do is meld my physiology with my machine’s soul.
In the very beginning, the science and art of gear shifting substitutes for under-developed horsepower. I lose the mental game when rocks, roots, trees and vines jump out at me. Gradually, like in any avocation, experience leads to greater strength and improved skills. The seat, lower back, leg and butt chaffing, neck and hand aches subside. It takes my daughter and I the first year to get through a 6 mile ride with 2 or 3 rest stops. An hour and a half to two hours of singletrack at a time is still gracious plenty for these bones.
Clip pedals and shoes permit push and pull half strokes. Clothing upgrades for ideal thermal and wicking properties in all types of weather help. As does hydration in a pack (that also holds trail essentials) instead of a bottle so you don’t have to stop. Gloves help grip and comfort. We newbies need all the help we can get. Can you bike merchants hear ka-ching, ka-ching?
Self-training while bipping through familiar beginner trails has its advantages for testing theories, and anything’s better than a sweaty indoor gym routine several times a week, but new challenges await. During this time Heather and I seek out new trail-riding experiences, venturing to other trails: Blankets Creek, Ag Center (alas, no longer with us), Yellow River. Still haven’t scratched the surface. Each has a different personality and adds a new edge, while pushing equipment and skills to new extremes.
Where does that leave us?
MTBing is a fresh biking experience, with spinning cranksets the only thing it holds in common with road cycling, past and present. I have more horsepower then I did before MTB, not as much as I need, and may never have the tone and coordination possessed by many of my MTB trail comrades, but I’ll continue to have fun challenging myself and my equipment at my own pace. Like a baby learning to walk, taking challenges in stride adds up to a mental pool of experiences to draw upon later. Trust and faith – in abilities and equipment – will lead us to the light!
Then one day, like the MTB racers, we can look forward to achieving perfect synchronization of body, machine, and the universe. Can I hear a hallelujah? I can see my MTB future now, looking through rose-colored forest-riding shades. I will be able to look yards and yards ahead while speeding along any trail, muscling up with all the power required to crank through any trail, any obstacle – intuitively adjusting my gyroscopic center of gravity – effortlessly and in micro-seconds so I will never fall again. And father and daughter will always be on call and available to share a quick hour or two MTBing.