Every now and then, a road triathlete friend of mine will ask me why I ride my mountain bike and cyclocross bike. After all, doesn't training for different types of bike events get in the way of training for the solitary goal of racing at Kona when I am 35 and have an unhappy home life and have a bike that could be used to pay for at least a year of in-state tuition for a child? Obviously I am being slightly facetious here, because I don't have any particular goal of racing Kona, let alone any other Ironman or even half, and that's something that most of my friends seem to understand. What they still don't understand is that to me, riding cyclocross is just fun as hell. It hurts and it's so much harder and I get crushed more than in any other triathlon. Mountain biking, on the other hand, is an ABSOLUTE BLAST. The real reason I decided to even write this post while I have other ideas sitting in my draft box is because I've been mountain biking the last couple of days. I didn't realize how much I missed it.
Anybody who has gone mountain biking knows exactly what I'm talking about. It's easy to forget though, just how nice it is not to worry about having to put a death grip on your handlebars any time you hear a car, or worry about the sketchy rider in the group ride who can't seem to hold his line, or in Virginia Beach, the wind (yes, it's really that bad, and it's only getting worse as it becomes winter). Those are just some of the perks of it, really. As I've mentioned before, I don't really care for "boring" cycling, that being steady effort sort of stuff. It's why I've gravitated more towards draft legal racing and training in group rides; I like being engaged mentally and just changing things up. Mountain biking takes that to a new level. Whether you're on the very flow-ey manmade trails of Freedom Park in Williamsburg or the rocky urban trails of the James River in Richmond, it doesn't really matter. You're always thinking about what's next, ESPECIALLY when, like I was, you're not very familiar with the turn. Mountain biking offers a whole new area to play with experimentation: different tire pressures, shocks, when to decide to unclip and hike-a-bike, whether to cut your bars down narrow, selection of gearing and tires, etc. It's really quite incredible for an egghead like myself. There's quite a bit of thinking that goes into it, but at the same time, it's all about feel. You kind of have to feel the trail, see the right line and just take it. Obviously that takes practice and anybody who has ridden with me knows I'm nowhere near that, nor do I have the power burst ability to get over many obstacles, but it's a constant challenge. You can always find a better line, a better combination of gear, a better way to ride a section of trail one way or the other. These things are all true to road cycling to a point, but there's always much more room to improve in mountain biking. No two times is the trail ever the same.
The first time I rode my mountain bike in Virginia was in either late June or early July. I wanted to scout out False Cape State Park, a remote park in the very southern part of Virginia Beach, butting up to the North Carolina border, where Bailey and I were going camping a few weeks later. I wanted to see what kind of bike we could "get away with" because there's no vehicle access. I rode down the main trail, which is essentially a sandy/dirt road. Once I figured out that she would in fact need a mountain bike because of how soft the sand was, I went out and rode back along the beach. There, in that instant, I think I found my nirvana, or meditation, or whatever you want to call it. I was riding my bike along the surf line with not a single thing in sight but unspoiled shoreline in both directions. Because of the remoteness of the park, very few people bother going more than a mile or so from the entrance, so there was literally nothing but crashing waves, seagulls, and me on the beach. It was arguably the most boring use of a mountain bike ever, but it was the most incredible feeling I'd ever had. I don't think I'd ever seen a completely undeveloped beach before (I am from New Jersey and we don't really have those), but I think seeing it on bike was even better than being on foot; perhaps because when I'm riding a bike I am normally so used to being on congested roads fearing for my life the entire time, but this was the polar opposite. I don't know the answer, but that's what it was.
As for the second time I rode, it was with Bailey on pretty much her first attempt at mountain biking. We found that in fact, maybe 5'2" girls shouldn't ride a 29er after all, but she loved it all the same...until she flatted the farthest way away possible from our campsite/the park entrance. Regardless, we had a blast with it and I can only hope she gets more into it.
|I figured I had a tube. I never even thought to check if it was a Schraeder valve. Whoops.|
|5-6 foot drop. Nailed it! (I bailed on most other things, and this one I actually didn't have a choice other than getting off my bike and walking down, and I'm not that big of a sissy)|
|If I got any closer to this feature, I think I would have broken a bone via osmosis.|
|Yup. Damn sure that I will not be attempting a 15 foot drop off that boardwalk, and I will be taking the long way down, off to the right.|
My next time out playing in the woods was in Richmond, site of the XTERRA East Championship. I did the race back in 2011 with no idea what the hell I was doing. I was attached to a Coast Guard cutter (ship) in NC at the time and figured I was reasonably close, so why not give it a shot. Prior to that, I had done XTERRA Jersey Devil, which takes place near Long Beach Island and has next to 0 elevation change and is mostly sandy/dirt roads. Richmond is another animal, and I later realized why the best mountain bikers in XTERRA say it's their favorite race: these trails are incredible, which also means they're hard as hell. I love it though. It's the epitome of a challenge, and I've gotten a lot stronger since the last time I rode these trails, both in my handling abilities and my general fitness on the bike, which makes up for a LOT as I found out. I rode what I believe to be the course more or less with some side riding as well. I couldn't ride the exact course because typically you go across one of the bridges in a lane back and forth across the James River, so I had to use the bridges via Belle Isle, which I believe used to be part of the course back in the old days. There are three distinct parts of the XTERRA course, the Buttermilk Trail on the south bank of the James, Forest Hill, and the North Bank Trail. In my opinion, the Buttermilk is the hardest, but they've all got their own quirks to them. It's incredible how many people are out on these trails though. I rarely went more than 10 minutes without seeing at least another rider, and I consider that a good thing. More people riding means we'll eventually have/need more trails (well at least I hope). I felt SO much stronger on this course than I did a year and a half ago. Don't get me wrong, I was still left toasted after riding it, but I didn't feel like I was merely trying to survive it this time. I wasn't pushing hard at all on it, but I probably still rode a lot faster than I did in a race, simply because I was more relaxed and confident. That's really a large part of mountain biking that I haven't realized until recently: confidence is key. Now, I just need to keep going back there to get better and more confident on this course. I want revenge, damnit.
|Panorama from roughly the swim start. On the course, you actually swim across the river, run across part of that island (Belle Isle) and come back. Oh, and frequently the river is so shallow you end up diving over rocks.|
|This is just downstream of the swim course for XTERRA. I actually took this photo and the previous one a few weeks ago when I was up in Richmond for a 'cross race. This kayaker dude was nutso.|
|Wait, so I can't eat big catfish from this river (evidently small ones don't carry PCB and Mercury? Weird), but I can swim in it? So thankful I don't work in pollution response for the Coast Guard. Ignorance is probably bliss.|
|Even though most of the trails are quite heavily wooded, I like that this one kind of captures the urban aspect of the course, with the freight train and skyline.|
So there you have it. I missed mountain biking, and now I'm back. I thought about going up to Richmond or at least Williamsburg a couple times during the summer, but I just never did. Now, I think this is going to be a semi-frequent occurrence. Something about the anti-authoritarian graffiti, sketchy people in the woods possibly conducting illicit activities, "walkers" who have gotten themselves in wayyyy too deep with the trails, and just other mountain bikers, it's a great place to go. Should you have $1,500 laying around or so, go buy a mountain bike. Or borrow one if you're normal people size and have friends within 4 inches of your height who own mountain bikes. Either way, get out there and do it. I assure you, you won't regret it. Crashing doesn't hurt that bad.