June 17, 2023
I rolled into the parking lot to find a group of twenty-five riders or so milling around. Most of them had embodied that signature mountain biker look - long shorts, slightly baggy t-shirts, bike shoes, and sleek wrap-around sunglasses. They were rocking waist packs with water bottles poking out and had lowered their dropper posts to lounge about while waiting for the ride to begin.
The evening was sunny and clear, accompanied by the brisk touch in the air that Northern Vermont so often provides, even after warm spring days. I parked on the far end and looked around to see if my co-workers had arrived with the bike I would be borrowing. They’d convinced me to join the group ride that evening and my attire did nothing to hide my lack of bike experience. I took a breath and climbed out of my car dressed in Altra running shoes, hiking pants, and a long sleeve base layer. To complete my look, I put on my trail running pack and then finally dug out my helmet.
If I hadn’t started working at a bike shop, I would still be riding once every two years. Biking was not something I ever became smitten with. After thirty minutes of pedaling, my back would start to ache, my butt would get sore and I’d have an incessant need to shift in my saddle to try and make it better. I’ve been told if you ride enough, you get used to it, and I’m sure that’s true, but I could never bring myself to struggle through when I could get my fill of nature and exercise by running, hiking or paddling instead. After two years at the shop though, I couldn’t help my curiosity. What was it about riding bikes that brought so much joy?
Onion River Outdoors holds weekly group rides as long as the weather allows. These rotate between gravel rides in the fall, fat bike rides in the winter, back to gravel rides in the spring and finally, once the trails dry out, mountain bike rides in the summer. Our local Vermont Mountain Bike Association (VMBVA) chapter, Montpelier Area Mountain Bike Association (MAMBA) partners with ORO to offer three different ride groups - mild, medium and spicy - to accommodate a variety of abilities on the trails. Given my little experience and slow speed, I had chosen to join the mild group. I figured I had a better chance of liking bikes if I was not left in the dust and lost in the woods.
The ride began and I held back as the faster paced groups sped off towards the trailhead. There were four of us riding in the beginner group tonight and it was a relief to get distance from the more experienced riders and be able to move at my own pace. I clicked down to my lowest gear and began the grind uphill. Cady Hill, where we were riding, has a collection of smoother-flow trails and eventually I settled into the rhythm of climbing, only every so often steering around a rock or bumping over a root.
We stopped to catch our breath halfway up and I took the chance to step off my bike and stretch. Road riding had never offered me the tranquility the woods now delivered. The sun was starting its descent and light filtered through the newly sprouted leaves throwing glints of orange and gold onto the trail. After a drink, we resumed the climb.
Mountain biking poses a couple of unique challenges. Not only do you have to be able to ride a bike to partake, but it also encourages a talent in wielding said bicycle over obstacles including, but not limited to, small rocks, large rocks, full on boulders, tree roots, human-made bridges that are frequently very narrow and sometimes have loose boards, and a collection of rather sharp twists and turns, all while pedaling uphill - which is tiring. Then, you get to the top only to realize that you also have to make it back down (yes, it is true what they say, what goes up must come down) and in order to do that, you have to go over the same obstacles but at much higher speeds because gravity is real. So, in the grand scheme of things, going uphill was the easy part. I cross-country ski, hike and run, and enjoy going uphill - in a type two fun kind of way. The difference is that each of these offers various ways of slowing down and stopping during your descent. Whether it is a strong snowplow (or power pizza as I call it) while skiing, or just not taking another step forward when running or hiking, there are options. On a mountain bike, I quickly learned that sometimes it was more dangerous to put on the brakes than it was to “let it roll.” I didn’t want to brake too hard, skid out and crash or brake too much, go over the handlebars and crash, but I also didn’t want to not brake, go too fast, hit a tree and crash, which left me in a bit of a conundrum.
As we began our descent, I positioned my pointer fingers on the brakes as instructed. My remaining fingers executed a death grip on my handlebars. My eyes scanned the upcoming trail and I mentally prepared for my exit strategy: eject onto the softest spot possible. The one comforting thought was that I could always get off my bike and walk if I needed. I clunked over the first couple of rocks before the trail tipped downward. My inner dialogue reduced itself to sound effects and naming the various obstacles that I passed… “tree!” … “rock!” … “uh oh… that’s a bridge” … “Ahhh!”... while the rest of my brain power went to navigating the winding trail.
The trail eased up in enough places to slow my speed and when the rocks got too rough or a turn too sharp, I’d climb off and scoot by on foot. I could hear the hoots and hollers from the other groups as they wove through on nearby trails and a comforting rattle that let me know the beginner group leader was still behind me. At least at my ability level, mountain biking required a level of focus that left little room to worry about other responsibilities. I let my attention narrow in on the sounds surrounding me and the feeling as my bike bumped along. Maybe this sport was for me after all because, with a little more practice, I could see how this flow might bring joy.
ORO & MAMBA summer 2023 mtb group rides are held Tuesday evenings, meet at 6pm, ride starts at 6:15pm. Rides last 1-1.5 hours. We ride a variety of local trails, so be sure to follow @Bike_Mamba for the location details.