First up, big thanks to fellow Bike Perfect writers Paul and Graham for filling the weekly slot superbly while I was away, and to my wife and youngest daughter for coping with me as the lack of riding made me increasingly restless. I mean, I love a bit of swimming but it’s not singletrack and Strava was literally all at sea off the coast of Italy. There’s definitely some real truth in the expression that “absence makes the heart grow fonder” though, and having some time off the bike has really helped me appreciate how great riding is.
The joy of bikes
I’m not even talking about the rad, adrenaline spiking ‘send it’ stuff either as my test schedule means I’ve been riding XC super bikes head-to-head all week. I’m talking about the very basics. The fact that your bike still carries on moving and flowing without pedaling rather than stopping immediately like walking or running. Even if you just let it roll straight on a simple fire road, that in itself feels magically efficient and freeing somehow compared to slapping your feet on the ground like most mammals do. Then if you start to work with the bike and the terrain, lifting over lumps, pushing into turns and pumping the back of slopes like a dirt surfer it feels like you’re flying with the birds. As a rider I don’t just feel enabled, I feel significantly evolved.
The act of riding can be a higher plain of spiritual experience too. Reading the trail ahead, letting experience and observation into judgements that juggle every movement. Tilting into turns, feeling the pressure through your feet and hands and knowing what that translates into in terms of traction. Shifting position instantly and instinctively to push towards the limits or pull it back. Sometimes fractionally like a riding god, sometimes with a flailing leg like a complete goon. Wherever your skill levels lie, the direct connection creates a richly visceral, involving and rewarding vibe where there’s always room for improvement but also plenty of reasons to be chuffed.
And while I’m someone who’s never happy with how I ride, and who’s professionally predisposed to find fault with everything I ride there are constant micro-wins to be had if you look for them. Gear shifts timed just right, tires slipping but saved, drop offs done, rooty climbs cleaned, or just the relief of screwing something up without hurting yourself.
Bikes are basically rewarding as vehicles too. The faster you go, the more gyroscopic force the wheels create so the less likely you are to fall over. That’s been made even more obvious by longer, slacker, lower geometry that’s designed to swing and swerve not tweak and twitch. The faster you go, the more momentum you have to carry you across obstacles too, so you’ll flow and fly rather than stumble and stutter. In other words, the faster and smoother you ride, the faster and smoother your bike will generally be.
Wild drug use
The distance you can go compared to other forms of human powered transport or even equine expeditions are opportunity multiplying too. 26 miles is a decent ride, but it’s not a marathon and again, the fact you can probably freewheel a bunch of that on rolling terrain just feels like a more fun way to travel than trudging along on foot.
Easy distance opens up options too, letting you explore further into the wilds. You can leave busy trailhead car parks or tourist towns way behind in minutes – not still be able to hear them half an hour later. Linking up different riding spots or downhill runs into a lunchtime or evening ride rather than having to pick just one location. Even if you’re on the rowdiest, eye popping DH runs, the chances are that when you stop you’ll be able to hear birdsong and tree rustle. See light strobing through trees, smelling the earth and just overdosing on the primal pleasure of being outside in the wild. Chuck in some mates to chase and answer those ancient predator urges of moving fast through the trees or just enjoy playing with the trail at whatever pace you want. Truth is, even if you’re uploading your ride for the rest of the world to see you’re the only one who really cares.
Even as someone whose job relies on relentless calibration and diagnosis of the dialogue between different parts of the bike performance algorithm, riding is still a fantastic escape. Whether it’s work or play, all that constant assessment, correction, obstacle avoidance and interaction between bike, body and environment makes mountain biking an incredibly mindful way to spend time.
Not in the yoga/meditation/whale sounds way most people think of, but certainly for me way more effective in completely taking my mind of other stresses and strains that might be leaning in on my life. Without getting all Lance Armstrong about it, riding can also release a whole lot of feel good drugs like dopamine, serotonin, adrenaline and even cortisone into your bloodstream and the buzz from those can last way longer than the last click of the freehub.
Or to put it another way, riding in the dirt is awesome, but sometimes you need to give yourself the space to really appreciate that to properly get the most from your mountain biking.