Life on the Singletrack: An Initiation into the Mountain Bike Scene

When I was a sophomore in college I started working at a local bike shop. Until that time, I wouldn’t have considered myself much of a biker, cyclist, whatever…..I just needed a summer job and some money. However, shortly after I started biking I realized I was way out of my league, especially in terms of hours spent in the saddle.

At the time I only had one bike, a mountain bike, and it really wasn’t what you would call “trail worthy”. Every Sunday after work, many of the guys at the shop would head out to go mountain biking for a few hours before the sun went down.  Feeling like I needed to fit in with the group and being too embarrassed to say “no” I took up their invite to ride some “singletrack”. To be honest, I didn’t really know what singletrack meant (I found out later it was simply a trail designed for riding). The only off-road riding I had ever done at that point was around camp grounds or county parks.

So with no off-road/mountain bike skills and no idea what I was doing I tried to ready myself for the upcoming ride. After we closed up shop, we loaded the bikes and headed to a trailhead. I looked out the window at the changing scenery and thought to myself. How hard could riding in the woods really be? After 45 minutes of driving, we were at the trailhead and the guys announced it was time to prep our bikes for the ride. I didn’t understand what it meant to “prep” your bike so I just touched various parts of the bike to make it look like I was inspecting the bike, after all that kind of looked like what they were doing.

Soon we were off pedaling and within 500 feet from the trail I was completely taken aback. My legs felt like sand bags and try as I might I just could never seem to catch my breath in the humidity that stagnates throughout the Wisconsin Summers and was present that day. I soon discovered that not only was mountain biking really hard, but it was also incredibly dangerous. I hit my pedals on countless rocks and my handlebars snagged on bits of foliage on narrow passages through tight tree sections. Conservatively, I would estimate I flew over my handlebars and ejected from my seat at least 10 times during the 2-hour ride. The only tidbit of relief I felt during that entire ride was that I was in the back of the group so no one could see me crash repeatedly. It was a lonely and frustrating experience to say the least.

After I somehow managed to find my way back to the trailhead and meet up with the rest of the group, who seemed to be breathing rather normally and not sweating at all, it was clear that I was out of my league. During the car ride home it was a true mental test in toughness to try and hold back the pain from all the cuts and bruises I had accumulated while on the trail. When I got back to my apartment to clean off, I looked as if I had been in a huge bar fight the night before.

Despite all of this I kept riding with the same group of guys weekend after weekend until I graduated from college and moved out of town.  Needless to say my first season of mountain biking was a rite of passage and one I won’t forget. I even still have a couple scars from rocks, etc. However, it was during that time that I learned how much I enjoy the camaraderie of riding partners. I also learned how much I love mountain biking. To this day, mountain biking with friends or by myself brings me much joy and provides clarity in my life. So even though it was a rough start, if it hadn’t been for my first ride on my first crappy mountain bike, I would never have had all the great memories to this point in my life on singletrack.



One thought on “Life on the Singletrack: An Initiation into the Mountain Bike Scene

  1. Good essay Mike. When I began mountain biking I had already been a road warrior for a few years and thousands of miles so the conditioning was there for me already. I purchased a new mtb and started riding at a state park near me that was huge and had miles and miles of trails and dirt roads. I noticed no other riders though, not even any tracks. I mtb’d another park in a neighboring county and observed the same thing. No riders and no signs of them. I should explain that this was in 1990 and the sport was still new on the east coast. Well, I ended up deciding to visit as many state parks as I could that season as a pioneering expedition to show people at the parks that there were no rules against riding mtb’s at these parks in hopes to attract more riders. I got waves from people and at one time a crowd formed to look at the bike at the trailhead parking area while it was on the car rack. Next year will be the 25th anniversary of that expedition and I had located an identical mtb and purchased it so next year I can redo the rides with the same make and model of bike as I rode back then to celebrate. I still have the list, maps and logs from back then and will use them as a guide. I went so far as to locate and purchase the vintage accessories I had on the bike then and even located and purchased the same kind of helmet (unused new in box) as I had back then. I’m looking forward to the 2015 riding season and visiting those trails again. I’m very fortunate that after 25 years I’m fit and still a good rider.


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