My First Mountain Bike Ride

August 5, 2001

Chicago, Illinois

3-1/2 hours

Bicycle:  Trek 6700


On Sunday afternoon, I got to go for my first real mountain bike ride. I rode out to the Indian Boundary Division on the Des Plaines River. I could see why people carry their mountain bikes everywhere on racks, because it took awhile to ride that beast seven miles out to the trail. An alternative would have been to ride to the Blue Line train and take that out to Cumberland. It was probably a good experience, though, because I got better acquainted with the bike's handling before I hit the dirt. On the other hand, I got tired sooner on the trails than if I had started " fresh."

The Indian Boundary Division was a great place to wander around and explore. There were plenty of trails, and civilization was close enough that I didn't have to worry about getting totally lost and into trouble. Plus the river and the main trail made it easy to keep my bearings. The trees offered shelter from the wind and the sun, but the canopy wasn't so thick that I needed clear-lensed glasses. Many of the side trails were well-developed. Some even had built-up dirt mounds and logpile ramps over big downed trees. There weren't many people there, either.

My first impression of mountain biking was that it's like high speed trail running. This was the most fun I'd had since those trail runs last winter/spring (right before I hurt my knee). What a rush! Even the main trail was kind of fun, but the single-track offshoots were a blast! This was like the trails I dreamed of riding my BMX bike on as a kid (most of the trails I rode in reality as a kid went through farmers' fields and were < yawn> straight as an arrow). Another unique element for me was not having any real destination, just riding around back and forth. Occasionally I would end up on the same trail I had ridden before, but it was just as much fun as the first time. Besides, a few hundred yards later I'd come to a fork and go a different way. I could imagine spending many hours out there exploring over the next few months.

I only fell once, and that was in a dark underpass. I couldn't see what my wheel was hitting, and a rut caught me by surprise. But I figured since it was dark and no one saw me, it wasn't so bad. Besides, it doesn't count unless you bleed, right?

One of the biggest challenges I found was shifting. I was so careful to watch the trail and avoid obstacles (and low-hanging branches!) that I sometimes forgot to shift down and ended up pushing a big gear on hills. To further complicate shifting, the terrain changed on the trails so quickly compared to on the roads. One time I was charging down the path on a slight descent, then suddenly there was practically a wall in front of me. I charged up it (I think I even yelled or growled or something!)... Halfway there... I was losing steam quickly... Only another ten feet, and the hill was already leveling off a bit... Damn!... I came to a complete stop five feet from the top. At least I had the presence of mind to immediately lay the bike down before I started rolling backward. A wide-eyed hiker on top had wisely stepped to the side when he saw me coming. I looked up at him, smiled and said, " Didn't make it... Almost, though." He looked at me incredulously as I walked the bike up and over the top, hopped on and bounced away down the trail. The adrenaline buzz of mountain biking was really amazing. Later, I pictured that steep hill in my mind and wondered how I ever thought I could climb it without falling over backward, and yet, at that moment it seemed like the natural thing to do. If I had been in a lower gear, I might have made it. That adrenaline scares me a bit--I could imagine myself doing something totally reckless and stupid someday--it reminds me of the buzz that led me to crawl under a stopped freight train on a trail run, only to have it start moving less than 30 seconds later!

Another challenge was general bike handling. I considered myself to have decent skills on the street, but the narrow trails and tight corners really pushed me to the limit. I decided that the two important elements to mountain biking were technique and caution. Occasionally, I had the former, but the latter saved me many times. I estimated that I had 35% technique and 65% caution, but in retrospect I was overestimating my skills. The ratio of technique to caution would change as I gained experience. Maybe I would start paying attention to the MTB sections of " Bicycling" magazine now--I always skimmed over them because they weren't relevant before. " How to do a six-foot drop," anyone?

I ended up riding on the trails for about 100 minutes (no cyclometer on that bike, so no mileage), then I was worn out. It surprised me how much more effort mountain biking required. I think a lot of that was the extra concentration of watching and reacting to the trail, while no doubt absorbing the bumps was tiring, too. Plus there was more acceleration and deceleration. I couldn't imagine doing one of those 24-hour endurance MTB rides. I left the trail down by Fullerton & Thatcher, so I had a good 9-10 miles to  ride on the streets afterward. I could have taken the trail part of the way back, but since that last stretch had included a run through a construction zone that I didn't feel like repeating, I stuck to the roads. Back home, I felt like I had been riding a lot more than 3-1/2 hours (including to/from the trail). Mountain biking was definitely a great workout. When I got home, I sat down on the couch beneath the A/C vent and promptly fell asleep for 30-45 minutes.

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